Modernism by Other Means

Posted on August 29, 2020


A plug for Srikanth Srinivasan’s book: MODERNISM BY OTHER MEANS, about the filmmaker Amit Dutta.

Srikanth is a deeply thoughtful commentator on cinema, and his book fills an important gap in writing about Indian cinema. I thought his book would be of interest to many readers of this blog.

Link for the Kindle e-book:
Link for the pdf version:

Here’s an excerpt.

In the first image of Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta’s Nainsukh (2010), an imaginative biography of the 18th century miniature painter from Guler in the Kangra Valley (current-day Himachal Pradesh), we see a man by a riverside. He is framed from behind, horizontally off centre, against the flowing water. It is Nainsukh. A priest approaches him and hands out a bundle of papers. The artist opens it up and paints on it. There is no dialogue and we will not know what the scene represents until the end of the film. The titles follow and give way to a scene in the workshop of Nainsukh’s father, Pandit Seu. The patriarch is sitting by the window, smoking hookah. Nainsukh is browsing folios as an apprentice prepares colours. This scene at the workshop is among the most memorable of the film. Edited to the sounds of the hookah bubbles and the grinding of colours, it establishes a rhythm of work, patient but persistent. We observe daybreak and nightfall through Pandit Seu’s window, we hear songbirds and crickets, and we understand how this rhythm of work is in step with that of nature.

Downstairs, Nainsukh’s mother wonders if Manaku, the elder son, has returned home. The film cuts to long shots of a tiny figure, clad in white, traversing the flat, miniature-like landscape. It turns out to be Manaku. He reaches home, ascends to the workshop, and exchanges glances with everyone. Framing his actors in a painterly manner, Dutta builds this wordless passage like a sequence from classic Hollywood cinema. Manaku hands Seu a gilded bracelet, presumably a reward for his painting. It is here that the script suggests a fraternal conflict on the issue of family style. As night falls, Manaku raises concern to his father about the influence of Mughal naturalism on the paintings of his brother Nainsukh, who remains unfazed and fixated on his work. Pandit Seu downplays the objection, attributing the stylistic shift to the will of their family goddess. The trio is filmed in deep space in an Ozuvian ‘tatami shot’, the tension between them palpable. This drama, however, will be diffused right away, as Nainsukh is summoned to the court of the neighbouring princely state, Jasrota.

Over the following two decades, he serves the king Zorawar Singh and his son Balwant in Jasrota. A parricide is hinted at in the latter’s rise to the throne. Balwant, like his father, is decadent in his ways and profligate with his wealth. He is soon questioned by his debtors and forced to flee Jasrota and spend his last years in exile. Throughout these episodes, Dutta intercuts between events at the court and Nainsukh’s portrayal of those events. For instance, Balwant sitting in a contemplative mood prior to his imminent downfall is cut to a sparse, melancholy painting of him.

In fact, entire scenes are dedicated to Nainsukh assembling actors into tableaux vivants he will use as models for his work. In the most striking of these, he orchestrates a scene depicting a tiger hunt. Like a theatre director, he stands on the second storey of a fort, calling out names of actors, who then trickle into the courtyard. As they strike poses, and point their swords, spears, and rifles off-screen, we hear a tiger on the soundtrack: Dutta, like Nainsukh, is constructing an illusion. Shortly afterwards, a man donning an oversized tiger mask is ushered in. Another is perched atop a tree, pointing fearfully at the tiger. The filmmaker cuts between these vignettes and corresponding fragments of the painting that Nainsukh finally realized. The picture was likely painted to valorize Balwant Singh, but Dutta’s humorous interpretation of the process undermines the enterprise. More importantly, it presents a different proposition about Nainsukh’s art: that he might not have been a blind naturalist; that he might have been drawing as much from imagination and existing iconography as from personal observation. In his book Many Questions to Myself (2018), Dutta writes about the playful vein of this episode:

‘In the sequence, the painting is rendered on film through montage. Each element from the painting is reproduced, but on top of the “heroic” sentiment is superimposed the interpretation of the scenario as one of re-enactment and play-acting rather than an actual hunt. Poetic liberty is taken to superimpose the heroic sentiment with one of playfulness, resulting in the rasa of hasya (amusement). This superimposition is both imaginative as well as historically informed.’

The final stretch of the film is a moving passage that portrays Balwant and his entourage, which includes Nainsukh, marching day and night in the wilderness. The king is exiled from his state, but so is Nainsukh from his art. In the inscription of one miniature, the painter speaks of being bereft of even paper during this drift. Yet, he paints whenever he can, with wit and humour, nonetheless staying loyal to the harsh reality around him. He constantly shows his work to his patron, who appears appreciative despite his deteriorating health. (Nainsukh’s overflowing enthusiasm makes one wonder if he was not seeking the recognition he never got from his brother.)

Balwant’s twilight days, photographed at the golden hour on the banks of a river, under an ominous gathering of crows, have a deep pathos to them. His terminal moments take place at a fort and are captured in a single tracking shot. The air echoes with the coughs of the king, who has retired into his tent. He calls for Nainsukh and hands him over a dossier. ‘It’s yours,’ are his last words. The artist opens the folder and flips through the folios. They are canvases depicting all the preceding scenes of the film—sequences that were not intercut with the corresponding paintings. This sudden influx of familiar but new imagery is cathartic, functioning like the therapeutic rush of repressed memories. The last of these is a mysterious image. It shows the gods Shiva, Parvati, and their two sons. Parvati is beading together heads of deceased men. As Dutta makes axial cuts towards the garland, we notice Balwant’s face—an unsettling reminder that even the mightiest shall fall.

The film ends with the death of Balwant Singh, even though Nainsukh himself lived for fourteen more years. In making the artist’s life coterminous with his patron’s, Nainsukh underscores the importance of Balwant’s visionary patronage. It is with this backdrop that we understand the significance of the film’s inaugural image, which also happens to be its last: Nainsukh, sitting on stairs leading to the banks of the Ganges, pays final respects to his patron. Now truly free, he is a shadow without a body.

Nainsukh marks the beginning of Dutta’s search for a new personal style, free of earlier cinematic influences and technical preoccupations. To be sure, the film does not mark a total rupture for Dutta, and it has a definite continuity with his previous feature film, Man’s Woman and Other Stories. There is the same emphasis on elements of nature as in the previous film. Characters’ relation to their surroundings—natural and manmade—continues to be at the focal point. Like in Man’s Woman, the men in Nainsukh are dwarfed by the cavernous architecture they inhabit. Windows remain important sites where social transactions take place. Spaces are still described using repetition and opposition of actor movement. However, there is a more sustained approach to the division of space across shots. The sequence describing Zorawar Singh’s death, for example, is a self-contained aesthetic object displaying a unique dramatic progression and formal harmony. Clocking just under two minutes, it consists of eight shots portraying the death of Zorawar, the ascent of Balwant, and Nainsukh’s reconfigured allegiance. The economy of expression here is matched by several internal rhymes and counterpoints, providing the sequence a flourish worthy of its central position in the film’s timeline.

Most crucially, Nainsukh crystallizes moments of historical valence, ideas that have implications beyond the scope of a biography. It trains its eye not just on the Guler master’s history, but on his place in history. Specifically, Dutta’s film casts light on the social position of the painter in eighteenth-century feudal India. Nainsukh was not only the painter in Balwant Singh’s court, but also its impresario. He would arrange dance and music performances for the king’s pleasure. In one of the many triptychs in the film, he stands by his patron’s side, commenting on the musical concert taking place. He is often seen with the other labourers of the royal retinue. Nainsukh has little of the elevated social status that his European counterparts had. He is one among many vassals in Balwant’s entourage. That is why the scene where the dying king returns all his paintings to the artist is of epochal significance. Like the Sun King in Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (2016), whose protracted demise enacts the power struggles overarching the Enlightenment project, Balwant acts out a historical transformation through his final gesture, bequeathing art historical legacy from the line of patrons to those of artists. In his passing, he frees Nainsukh of all feudatory obligation, effectively ushering in a nascent modernity. What Nainsukh experiences, viewing his own paintings one by one, is the blossoming of an aesthetic self-consciousness, the notion of the artist as creator as opposed to the artist as messenger. These paintings narrate Balwant Singh’s life, sure, but they also chronicle Nainsukh’s own artistic development. In transplanting art’s primary function from the public realm to the private, the last scene of Nainsukh inaugurates the story of modern Indian art, the subject of two of Dutta’s subsequent features.